NEW YORK -- All eyes were again on Tim Hardaway Jr., but this time the scene came with an eerie hush. Less than four minutes remained in No. 4 Michigan's eventual 71-57 win over Kansas State in the NIT Season Tip-Off final, a victory Hardaway had animated more than anyone, never more emphatically than with a one-dribble pull-up jumper 10 minutes earlier that put the Wolverines up by 16, prompted a Wildcats timeout, and inspired a rising wave of applause as Hardaway beamed at midcourt alongside teammate Trey Burke. But now it was quiet because Hardaway was crumpled on his side in the paint near the Michigan basket, holding his head after it collided with a knee while he dove for a loose ball.
It is important to note now that Hardaway is said to be just fine -- that after he was helped to his feet and guided off the court to a jarring combination of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" and let's-hope-he's-okay cheers. Hardaway passed all of his concussion tests and was going to fly back home with the team. A few minutes after being delicately escorted away, Hardaway had even returned to the floor for the championship presentation, where he received his trophy as the tournament's MVP and stood at the center of the Wolverines' team photo.
It also should be noted that even with a game-high 23 points to his name and his team leading by 18 in the game's closing minutes, Hardaway felt it necessary to dive to the hardwood for possession and risk his body to give his team just one more nudge toward victory.
"Obviously he's got great DNA," said Michigan coach John Beilein, alluding to the 6-foot-6 junior's UTEP Two-Stepping, five-time NBA All-Star father, "but DNA doesn't get you there alone."
Beilein was referring to the work Hardaway has put in on his own time, both at home in Miami and during hours outside of practice in Ann Arbor, all in what he described earlier in the week as an effort to be "more than just a shooter". Hardaway has never shied away from shooting -- he ranked in the Big Ten's top 10 in percentage of shots taken during his first two seasons -- but if a "shooter" designation implies success, Hardaway stretched the label at times last season as his three-point percentage slipped from 36.7% as a freshman to just 28.3%.
But the Hardaway who became the NIT's star can indeed shoot. He may have made just two of 10 three-point attempts in the wins over Pittsburgh and Kansas State in the semifinal and final, but he buried jumpers -- eight of them officially, including the one a step inside the three-point line that caused the aforementioned jubilation, or the one that finally broke a scoreless tie after nearly three minutes of play, or the off-kilter mid-range bucket after dribbling between two defenders that put the Wolverines up eight less than 11 minutes into the game.
Perhaps more importantly, so many of his scoring chances were of his own volition, on quick dribbles off a pass or with a nostalgia-inducing crossover of his man to create space. He also ran the offense at times while Burke battled foul trouble in the first half, at one point zipping a crisp pass to a cutting Matt Vogrich in the post, though Vogrich's shot ended up being blocked. His only memorable blemish was putting a surging dunk attempt off the back iron after blowing by his defender on the wing in the second half.
Hardaway's improvement was not lost on Wildcats coach Bruce Weber, who coached against Hardaway the past two seasons at Illinois and served on the USA Men's Junior National Committee last summer, which selected Hardaway to the U-19 team with designs to employ him as their go-to shooter. Hardaway hit just 27% of his threes on a team that finished fifth in the FIBA championships and was not yet the type of more complete player that could excel elsewhere. That was not the Hardaway that put on a show against Weber's team Friday night.
"He's a different player now," said Weber. "The thing we noticed most was putting it on the floor and getting to the basket. Makes it tough to guard him."
"How about the rebounds he's getting right now?" asked Beilein. Hardaway finished with seven in the game. "He's getting traffic rebounds from a lot of people. He's taking the ball on the break. He would give it up before and we probably told him to because he probably didn't have that confidence. He has it now... When you work really hard, it just breeds confidence. He has that."
Beilein too has a new confidence, both in Hardaway and in the depth of his roster. Not only was Burke idle for much of Friday's first half after picking up two fouls, but he was also quiet when on the court, not attempting his first field goal until the second half. Sophomore center Jordan Morgan joined Burke on the bench with foul issues of his own and ended up playing just six minutes.
In Burke's stead, Michigan got 12 turnover-less minutes from understudy and former afterthought recruit Spike Albrecht, a 5-11 freshman who Beilein compared to an altar boy. ("Did any of you just sort of shake your head when he hit that pull-up three?" Beilein asked reporters after the game.) Sophomore forward Jon Horford picked up Morgan's slack, putting up six points and three boards in 17 minutes after playing just 28 minutes over Michigan's first four games. And 6-6 freshman Nik Stauskas appears to be here to stay as a second-team scoring option, scoring in double figures for his fourth straight game and earning high 21st-Century praise when Beilein described him as having "swag in everything he does."
"It used to be very concerning when we had foul trouble like that," Beilein said. "You don't want to see anybody sitting on the bench, but we know when we turn to the bench, we have some guys."
After the Pittsburgh game on Wednesday -- a five-point win in the Wolverines' first meeting with a major-conference team -- Beilein remarked that "this is big-man basketball right now". With its showing in New York this week -- where it beat two likely tournament teams from power conferences despite atypical poor three-point struggles and a mostly neutralized All-America point guard -- and the emergence of Hardaway as a dynamic go-to scorer, the Wolverines seem capable of playing the biggest-man basketball the country has to offer.
"The season's a marathon," Beilein said. "This is maybe the first 400 yards or so of that marathon, but we ran it well."
With Hardaway unavailable to the media because of his head-injury scare, Friday's post-game press conference with Beilein, Burke, and Robinson became a series of observations, explanations, and attempts at speculation about the night's star. At one point Burke spoke about the confidence he's noticed in his teammate, prompting a follow-up question about why that confidence might exist. Burke, with a subtext seeming to question the whole exercise, couldn't help but smile.
"Why? Uh, I don't know, really," he said. But moments later Burke offered one take on Hardaway of which he was certain: "When he plays like that, we can be very special."